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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The [ketubah is the] marriage contract by which a bridegroom obligates himself to provide a settlement for his wife if he divorces her, or his heir if he predeceases her.
Root of the Word
Ketubah, from the root katav, “to write,” is the name for both the written contract itself and for the amount the husband is obliged to settle on his wife. The main purpose of the ketubah is to prevent a husband divorcing his wife against her will, which, in talmudic times, he had the right to do. The knowledge that he had to pay his wife her ketubah would serve as a check against hasty divorce.
The minimum amount for the ketubah is 200 zuz for a virgin and 100 zuz for a widow or divorcee. These amounts were by no means negligible since an average house in talmudic times could be bought for 50 zuz, and if a man had 200 zuz in ready cash, he was no longer eligible for poor-relief.
A groom could, of course, add to the ketubah any amount he wished. A whole tractate of the Mishnah and Talmud, tractate Ketubot, is devoted mainly to the laws of the ketubah. In addition to the basic settlement, the husband undertakes in the ketubah to protect his wife, work for her, provide her with her marital rights and with all that is necessary for her due sustenance.
Since [the ketubah] was a legal document and had to be understood by both parties, it was written in Aramaic, the vernacular in talmudic times. This form is still preserved in the traditional ketubah,though in Anglo Jewry and elsewhere there is an English translation on the back of the document.
In the State of Israel, the ketubah is still an enforceable legal document. In the [United States], the [United Kingdom], and most European countries, marriage arrangements are a matter for the secular civil law, so that the ketubah becomes a formality, every ketubah stating only the amounts of either 200 or 100 zuz. Nevertheless, since in rabbinic law it is forbidden for a man to live with his wife unless she has a ketubah, the drawing up and reading of the ketubah is part of every Jewish marriage ceremony.
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